J&K Averts Yatra Face-off13 June 2011
The Telegraph (Kolkata)
Srinagar: A last-minute deal today averted a possible showdown between the Jammu and Kashmir government and Hindu groups over the Amarnath yatra’s duration. The Hindu groups had been up in arms against a decision by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to curtail the annual pilgrimage from the usual two months to 45 days. The board, headed by governor N.N. Vohra, had cited the adverse weather. The official yatra was scheduled from June 29 to August 13 but the Shri Baba Amarnath Nyas, an umbrella body of several Hindutva groups, had decided to start the pilgrimage from tomorrow, 15 days ahead of schedule. In reply, the Omar Abdullah government stationed police teams along the Jammu-Srinagar national highway to prevent any “unofficial yatris” from entering the Valley. The compromise was worked out in Jammu this evening by a high-level official team that included state police chief Kuldeep Khoda, home secretary B.R. Sharma and principal secretary to the chief minister B.B. Vyas. Officials said the yatra would be flagged off on June 29 but symbolic prayers would be held on June 15 to placate the Nyas. “Our key demand was to start the yatra on Jaisht Purnima (June 15). The government has agreed to take our members to the nearest possible spot to the holy cave in choppers to perform the puja on June 15,” Nyas convener Dineshwar Jamwal said. Rajesh Gupta, a local BJP leader who co-ordinated today’s meeting, said agreement had been reached on three points. “The government will set up a committee to see if the yatra’s duration can be increased from next year. A joint puja will be observed on June 15. Since the infrastructure is not in place for an early start, this year’s yatra will start on June 29,” he said. The Nyas was planning to dispatch its volunteers in groups from June 14 for the yatra, raising the possibility of a confrontation with the government. The administration had earlier succeeded in splitting the Nyas ranks by taking several Hindu leaders on an aerial survey of areas around the cave. “Their assessment was that the yatra routes were unsafe for trekking,” a source said. Officials said both the Baltal and Pahalgam routes were packed with snow. The Amarnath cave shrine is perched in the Himalayas, which remain covered with snow for most of the year. Bad weather killed 243 pilgrims in 1996, and several casualties take place every year. The Nyas, however, had accused the shrine board and the government of giving in to separatists who want the yatra cut to 15 days, claiming that was the pre-1990 practice. The yatra’s duration has been all bone of contention since 2003, when then governor S.K. Sinha decided to extend it from one month to two months.